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Major investigative exposes by satellite imagery over the years

Satellite imagery has become an indispensable tool in investigative journalism for fact-finding, gauging the impact of a particular situation and figuring out the exact detail. It has also become an effective tool in conflict zones and for correctly and precisely pinpointing human rights violations or assessing the developmental patterns. Investigative journalism often weaves reportage, narratives of people on ground and storytelling.

In conflict zones and other volatile regions that are constantly rated as the ‘Most hazardous places for journalists’ satellite imagery can emerge as a reliable alternative.

Be it the satellite imagery that shows the extent of electrification in DPRK or satellite imagery that shows houses of Rohingyas bulldozed by the Myanmar Army, a lot of path-breaking stories have been broken with the help of satellite imagery.

Before-and-after imagery shows Rohingya villages bulldozed

In 1995, satellite images provided evidence of mass executions in Srebrenica, in erstwhile Yugoslavia.

Images of Srebrenica. Courtesy: NSA archives

In the year 2007, satellite imagery was used to expose the construction of an airstrip in Botswana, in the then President Ian Khama’s private home.

Construction of airstrip in central Botswana.

In a historic moment in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe since the country gained independence in 1980 and the former hero of the liberation struggle turned authoritarian strongman whose policies led Zimbabwe to the path of colossal economic ruin, was ousted after 37 years at the helm by a coup orchestrated by the military and his former deputy Emerson Mnangagwa.

This image, taken by DigitalGlobe‘s WorldView-2 satellite, shows Mugabe’s palatial home in Harare nicknamed ‘Blue Roof, where he was kept in captivity.

Blue Roof, Harare

Iran has long tried to clandestinely obtain nuclear weapons. The contentious Iranian Nuclear Deal under US President Barrack Obama aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Satellite imagery by Planet shocked the world when it exposed secret Iranian facilities that were developing nuclear rockets.

Planet imagery shows Iran nuclear site.

Satellite imagery has also shown the detention camps or the euphemistically called ‘Re-education camps’ in China where thousands of Uighur Muslims of the restive Xinjiang province of China are held.

satellite imagery of Xinjiang.

DigitalGlobe satellite imagery also showed the massive influx of Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh, thus highlighting the acute humanitarian crisis.

Also Read: Satellite imagery shows suspected sites of US coalition airstrike in Syria

In the protracted conflict in Syria, satellite imagery identified strongholds of the dreaded terrorist group ISIS, the extent of devastation in Syria’s former industrial and financial hub Allepo, the havoc wreaked in the third largest city Homs and the archeological and heritage sites that have been ravaged in the ongoing conflict.

Before-and-after satellite imagery showing the destruction of Allepo.

In Afghanistan – which is at the strategic crossroads of Central Asia and is witnessing intermittent conflict and internecine warfare since more than 3 decades – Copernicus satellite imagery monitored internal displacement and helped the UN to know the extent of the man-made catastrophe.

In the newly carved and conflict-prone South Sudan, satellite imagery showed the miserable conditions in refugee camps and Digital Globe satellite imagery was instrumental in tracking food scarcity and eventually assisting in relief. In the conflict in Darfur, satellite imagery highlighted the destruction of villages and the egregious violation of human rights.

DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of Darfur.

In 2014 Digital Globe released five satellite images that showed Russian troops and heavy artillery crossing the Ukrainian border. The images were picked up by NATO and they contradicted the Kremlin’s claim that there has been no Russian-backed infiltration in Eastern Ukraine.

In 2017 DPRK sent shockwaves throughout the globe by declaring major successes in its intercontinental ballistic missile program and nuclear program.

The above image was taken by DigitalGlobe‘s WorldView-2 satellite on November 21. It shows the factory in Pyongsong where the Hwasong-15 ICBM is believed to have been developed

Other than conflict zones and wars, satellite imagery also helps journalists investigating natural disasters or studying deprivation patterns.

These are just a few prominent examples highlighting the importance of satellite imagery in unearthing information, separating hard facts from the miasma of speculations, deliberate obfuscations and hearsay.

Bygone is the era when investigative journalists had to rely on reams of data and sources and then do the painstaking task of not only winnowing the wheat from the chaff by themselves but also ensuring the information is reliable. With high-resolution satellite imagery, everything is crystal clear with no room for doubt

Satellite imagery is opening up new frontiers in journalism and vindicating the old motto of empowering people through knowledge.

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